The Comeback Kid

Carolina rice, the “heritage grain” lost to history in the Reconstruction era, has come back in a major way. Indeed, in a 2017 article, Eater declared that “The Grain Revolution Is Here,” describing one company’s attempt to bring back the historical strain of Oryza sativa. Varieties of Carolina rice, in particular, “Carolina Gold,” have been attracting the attention of niche cooking websites and standard news sources alike, with outlets from Serious Eats to the New York Times spotlighting the grain.


Yet behind Carolina Rice (which Serious Eats refers to in part as “the Best Rice You’ve Never Tasted”) is a long and fraught history, which manifests stories of settler colonialism, slavery, and famine. Its story spans the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, crisscrossing the globe from West Africa to the eponymous American colony to India. Its history demonstrates how the British Empire and the newly independent America were built on the labor and knowledge of enslaved people. It was this very knowledge that changed cultivation patterns and foodways across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, resulting in today’s global food system.


What—and from Where—Is Carolina Rice?

Carolina rice typically refers to the type of Oryza sativa, or Asian rice, that was grown in the Carolina Lowcountry during the colonial and antebellum periods. There were two different varietals, Carolina White rice and Carolina Gold rice, distinguishable by the color of their husks. An 1892 work on the different types of rice describes the seed of Carolina White as a “white, flinty grain … which has given Carolina Rice a world-wide reputation.” By contrast, in the author’s estimation, the Carolina Gold seed was “a large plump grain, heavy yielder, but apt to shatter and deteriorate.” This type of rice, according to eighteenth-century naturalist Mark Catesby, was grown in trenches in soil that was “usually two feet under water, at least two months of the year.”


Recently, however, scholars have noted types of Oryza glaberrima—African rice—also growing in Carolina. Evidence of this red, nutty rice can be found in descriptions of plantations from the eighteenth century. In the 1731 pamphlet The Importance of the British Plantations in America to this Kingdom…,—which is, according to historian A.S. Salley, the “first published account that the writer has been able to find of the beginning of rice culture in South Carolina”—the pamphleteer describes a “Red Rice in Contradistinction to the White, from the Redness of the inner Husk or Rind of this Sort, tho’ they both clean and become white alike.”1


How did these two types of rice make it across the oceans to Carolina? During the violent Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade, European slave-traders relied on African rice crops, as well as transplanted higher-yielding varieties of Asian rice, to keep the newly enslaved peoples and their captors fed on the journey.2 Rice, then, most likely came from West Africa, an unintended consequence of the Middle Passage. Contemporary sources suggest as much. Guillaume Thomas Raynal, a French thinker of the Enlightenment, wrote in an English edition of a work published in 1798, “Opinions differ about the manner in which rice hath been naturalized in Carolina. But whether the province may have acquired it by shipwreck, or whether it may have been carried there with slaves, or whether it be sent from England, it is certain the soil is favourable for it.” Scholars such as Peter Wood have declared that Raynal’s middle hypothesis was the correct one, as no European group living in the Carolina colony had experience cultivating the crop.3


Growing Rice in Carolina

But it was not enough merely to bring the seed to Carolina. Rather, tidal-basin cultivation, as Catesby documents occurring in Carolina, was a specialized form of cultivation unknown at the time in England. This fact is highlighted in natural histories of the period. Consider Catesby’s discussion of the wetland cultivation of rice in colonial America: “In March and April it is sown in shallow trenches made by the Hough, and good Crops have been made without any further Culture than dropping the seeds on the bare ground and covering it with the Earth, or in little Holes made to receive it without any further management.” Catesby uses the passive voice, which is not uncommon in his agricultural descriptions. And yet, this seemingly innocuous construction in fact erases the essential contributions and knowledge of enslaved people, without which Carolina rice would not have come to America and the crop in general could not have been cultivated in the wetlands.


Catesby makes the role of enslaved people in rice cultivation implicitly known through his reference to the “Hough,” which makes “shallow trenches” in the land. The hoe was not a prominent tool in European agriculture at the time, “which relied principally on draft animal traction”; such metal tools were not used by the local Native American population either. In colonial-era West Africa, however, the hoe was the primary tool used for field preparation.4 Catesby’s reference to the “Hough” thus belies a long history of West African knowledge being used in the Carolinas.


In the penultimate sentence of his description of rice, Catesby finally acknowledges the role of enslaved peoples in the crop’s production, writing, “they use a Hand-Mill, yet there remains an inner Film which clouds the Brightness of the grain, to get off which it is beat in large wooden Mortars, and Pestles of the same, by Negro Slaves, which is very laborious and tedious.” This mortar and pestle tool, another technology used in West Africa, was employed almost exclusively by women, demonstrating the gendered aspect of rice cultivation.


Any doubt that enslaved people brought wetland rice cultivation to Carolina has been put to rest by geographer Judith Carney. In her path-breaking work Black Rice, Carney details how the “preparation of tidal floodplains for rice cultivation followed principles remarkably similar to those of the mangrove rice system [in West Africa].”5 This was an incredibly intricate system, which required embankments, ditches, drainage valves, and more. As Carney explains, it was only with the knowledge of mangroves in West Africa that such systems could have been built in Carolina.


As a result of the cultivation knowledge of enslaved people, particularly women, rice quickly became a popular cash crop grown in the American colonies. According to an 1892 work on the history of rice by “Dan Talmage’s Sons,” annual rice production in the 1720s averaged about 10 million pounds; in just two decades, that number more than doubled to over 25 million pounds per year. Indeed, Carolina rice was the “region’s dominant export,” and a major player in the Western European market for rice.6


Carolina Rice Beyond Carolina

Enslaved people’s knowledge of rice cultivation techniques did not only influence American agricultural systems—this knowledge spread throughout the British Empire, concomitant with the transfer of seeds. One clear example can be found in the attempted introduction of Carolina rice to India in the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British food distribution policies, exacerbated by droughts that caused the failure of the rice crop, killed millions of locals; scholar Mike Davis famously referred to these famines as “Late Victorian Holocausts.”7


By the 1860s, British imperialists believed something had to be done to justify their rule in India, which the horrors of famine were undermining. What was thought to be the panacea for these famines? Carolina rice (most likely of the Gold varietal), whose distinct cultivation conditions were understood, according to an 1880 memorandum by L. Liotard published in Calcutta, to be “much superior to that of the ordinary paddy,” and thus better able to withstand environmental factors. As a result, Liotard wrote, in 1868, “ten tons of Carolina rice seed, for experimental cultivation in India, were obtained by the Secretary of State.” The seeds were then packed in 200 barrels, of which 120 were sent to Madras, 45 to Burma, 15 to Bombay, 5 to the Central Provinces; 15 barrels were reserved for the Government of India.


With the rice came enslaved people’s rice cultivation knowledge, codified and amplified through travel across the continents and in the memoranda and instructions of the British imperialists. According to a memorandum by the American consul in Bombay (quoted in Liotard), “Rice is sown in long drills made by hoes (machinery does not work well) about one foot deep.” While hoe-farming had long been present in Southern Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, the parenthetical note that “machinery does not work well” suggests that Carolina rice necessitated a set of tools different from those used for the typical rice grown in South Asia. The knowledge of the enslaved people on the beneficial use of hoes in farming Carolina rice spread from West Africa to Carolina to India, demonstrating the reach as well as significance of such knowledge.


In the end, the Carolina rice experiments in India were considered a failure by the British imperial government due to “floods, excessive rains, or drought, birds, insects,” as well as the “carelessness and indifference with which the experiments were conducted.” Historian Utsa Ray has deemed this reasoning part of the “Colonial discourse of ‘rational’ agriculture…based on cultural stereotyping.”8 While Carolina rice did not succeed in India, its story in India reveals the stark contrast of empire, in which British imperialists horrifically exploited a group of people considered to be sub-human, but used their specialized knowledge and labor to profit and maintain colonies half a world away.


An Agricultural Legacy of Enslaved People

Through the complex history of Carolina rice, we not only see how rice was explicitly integrated into the imperial policies of the British government, but also how its consumption—from America to Britain—was predicated not only on the toil of enslaved people, but also on their cultivation knowledge, brought to America on the violent Middle Passage. This interconnected history of the movements of plants and people suggests the ways in which enslaved people influenced the food systems not only of the American colonies, but of the British Empire at large.



  1. A.S. Salley, “The Introduction of Rice Culture into South Carolina,” Bulletin of the Historical Commission of South Carolina, no. 6, (1919):10. 

  2. Judith Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), 145. 

  3. Peter Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina From 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), 35–36. 

  4. Judith Carney, Black Rice, 92–93. 

  5. Judith Carney, Black Rice, 108–110. 

  6. R.C. Nash, “South Carolina and the Atlantic Economy in the Late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” The Economic History Review, New Series, 45, no. 4 (1992): 679–681. 

  7. Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2002). 

  8. Utsa Ray, Culinary Culture in Colonial India: A Cosmopolitan Platter and the Middle-class (Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 50.